Older school heads remember Kwame as the polka dot clad emcee who gained fame in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Once the emcee fame died down, however, what a lot of people may not realize is Kwame moved from being on the mic to behind the boards and launched a whole new career as a producer. The list of artists he’s worked with includes Method Man, Mary J. Blige, Will Smith, LL Cool J, Christina Aguilera, Talib Kweli, Yung Joc and The Pussycat Dolls. Currently Kwame is working in the studio with Estelle, Nina Sky, Skillz and his own artist Beyond Belief, but he was kind enough to take a few minutes out of his busy schedule to sit down with us at RapReviews to discuss which artists have been the easiest to work with, what he thinks about the progression of emceeing, his thoughts on the infamous Biggie line, and how Will Smith helped him through one of the toughest times of his life.

Adam Bernard: As a producer you’ve worked with some of the biggest names in Hip-Hop, R&B and Pop. Who have been some of the easiest people to work with?
Kwame: The biggest artists are the easiest to work with. The people who you would swear, because they’ve sold hundreds of millions of records, would be the most difficult, they’re the easiest. For example, LL Cool J. This guy has a 25 year track record of making records. First of all, that’s unheard of in Hip-Hop, period, so when you get around an artist like an LL if you don’t know your craft you can somewhat get intimidated because it’s like every record could potentially be his last. When you work with a guy like that you would think they would be stuck in their ways, but somebody like an LL is always, in his mind, trying to broaden what he’s done and at the same time maintain what he’s done. It’s a different perspective. New artists can do whatever they feel like they want to do, they have everything to gain, nothing to lose, but when you work with an artist that’s been around for a long time their focus is so much sharper and at the same time they’re willing to listen, they’re willing to say “just tell me what you need me to do and I’ll do it.” Like Christina Aguilera. If I work with LL he knows my history as a rapper. Christina has no clue, she just thinks that I’m a producer coming into the studio, but she’s willing to relinquish any ego that she has and just say you’re the producer, you have your vision for the song, tell me what you want me to do. You get that with the seasoned artists because they’ve been around the block a couple of times so they know how to maneuver it and they know how to make a good song. With a new artist you have to talk em into stuff, you’re being more of a coach at that point.

AB: Will Smith is in that long roster of artists you’ve worked. How amazing is he in the booth?
K: The thing that I respect about Will is that he does not have to rap at all, so when he decides to make a record it’s because he purely loves the art form. Core Hip-Hop fans may not respect Will as a lyricist but one thing, and this is a conversation that I’ve even had with Will, rap fans needs to understand is you need three to four types of rappers in order for the art form to survive. You need your lyrical street guy. You need your artsy eclectic type of guy. And you also need your mainstream middle of the road poster child for rap to gain fans that would have no idea or no business even wanting to hear rap. Those fans, their dollars generate the underground as well and it causes rap to flourish. Somebody like Will Smith is the epitome of that third type of rapper and Will knows this. He doesn’t try to be Jay-Z, he doesn’t try to be Young Jeezy, or whoever is hot in the street at the time. He knows that when he goes in to make a record he’s making rap records for fans that don’t like rap, that don’t buy into rap, so when we did the record “Switch” I came in with the track and the hook and pretty much the concept of the record and from there we decided OK, we need to turn this into a dance. We already had the visual before we had the record because he understood what it was. Then he just went in there and he wrote what he had to write. He didn’t try to make it complicated. He didn’t try to make it hood friendly. He’s very focused and on top of that he’s a very scheduled person because at the time he was filming the movie Hitch, if I’m not mistaken, so right from a full 12 hour day of shooting he would mark out another 6-8 hours to record. He would do what he had to do, go to sleep for a couple hours, and get up the next morning to shoot. He was very focused, very dedicated and the thing that I enjoyed the most about working with Will is that throughout my whole career Will inadvertently has helped me in many different situations, so for me to be able to give him maybe what might be his last number one record, that was an honor for me.

AB: How has he inadvertently helped you?
K: When I first started out I didn’t really know the business, I didn’t know how to conduct myself as a certain type of artist. I just thought it was about getting on stage, getting money and then getting groupies afterwards. That was my whole outlook as a 16 year old, 17 year old rapper.

AB: At 16 or 17 that’s pretty much the outlook a lot of us have on life.
K: Yeah {laughs}, so Will was able to pull me to the side and literally school me to the game. He was like yo, this is something you can make a lifelong career out of, this is something that you can pay mortgages with and car notes and help family members and do things like that if you play your cards right, if you act accordingly, if you make the right type of records and the right type of decisions. I never was able to see a Grammy before. He showed me – here hold it, this is a Grammy, you can get this, too. You can go anywhere you want to go and you can use me as an example. These are things that he told me when I was younger and there was a period between me having a record deal and me being a producer and being able to make money as a producer where my money was virtually non-existent, but Will would put certain records that I did in his TV show and he didn’t know, but that literally helped me to survive through some tough times.

“I had to let [Will Smith] know that I totally appreciate the things that he’s done and things that he’s said.”

AB: And you’re still getting residuals off that because his show is still being rerun 30 times a day!
K: Oh definitely, definitely, and I had to let him know that I totally appreciate the things that he’s done and things that he’s said. He’s helped me in a lot of different ways in my career.

AB: How do you feel emceeing has grown since your days on the mic?
K: Honestly, I haven’t really seen too much of a growth. Actually I’ve seen a digression, for the most part, because of the simple fact that when I was younger it was 100% about your lyrics, no one could sound just like someone else, and it was topic driven. If you listen to an old school album each song pretty much had a different topic. With most of the “mainstream” rappers now, and I put in quotations “mainstream,” it’s about one of two things, being rich or fuckin. It’s dwindled down to a mono or dual topic art form. There’s also partying, so maybe three topics. Those are the three main topics, where maybe an old school album would be, OK you need to have a conscious record, you need to have a love record, some people said that they even needed to have a reggae sounding record. Then you needed a club record, then you needed a sex record, and then the rest of it was lyrical content. I don’t think a lot of the artists, that their first thought pattern is to do that. Their thought pattern is to one up what’s already been done. I’m gonna make a better party record. I’m gonna make a better fuck record. That’s where an experienced producer comes into play because you’re able to push the boundaries with these artists and allow them to express themselves where they thought that they couldn’t express themselves. I don’t think these young rappers can’t express themselves, I just don’t think that they feel that they can. That’s what it is.

“Once an MC always an MC. I think for me it’s a little bit different.”

AB: Do you have aspirations to jump on the mic again?
K: Once an MC always an MC. I think for me it’s a little bit different. Rap is the only art form that, for lack of a better term, shits on the things that actually helped create it, so me coming back as a rapper would be me just doing something for fun, or doing something for my own gratification, and not really expecting too much of a return out of it. I still feel that I have things to express and things that I want to do as an artist, so I’m just coming up with my own type of projects that I put myself on just for that expression. For example, the first thing that I’m doing, I’m actually developing it now, is a download called Kwame versus Stevie Wonder / Kwame versus Prince. Prince and Stevie Wonder are two of my favorite artists so I’m taking maybe six of my favorite records from each artist and I’m flippin em. I’m sampling em, transforming the records, doing remixes, doing creative things with those records, and I’m putting it out as a free download. That’s just a way to express myself as an artist and as a producer and not have to worry about the constraints of wanting to be on a Billboard chart or anything like that. Those are the type of things, those type of left field projects, I’ll do for myself as an artist just to keep stuff out there. It’s looking like it will be 100% ready in September, but I’m such a perfectionist, it started with me sampling Prince records and now it’s turning into me hiring actual members of The Revolution or different various Prince band members and making tracks featuring them. I don’t know how this is going to turn out, but I think Prince, Stevie Wonder and Kwame fans will definitely enjoy it.

AB: I’m looking forward to hearing which Prince songs you work with because some of my favorites were album cuts rather than singles.
K: They’re definitely not popular mainstream Prince songs, that’s a 100% definite.

AB: Finally, if Biggie were alive today would you punch him in the face?
K: Not at all! I think that if he were alive today I’d be doing tracks for him. I know it for a fact. I think people played up the “Unbelievable” line (“Your life is played out like Kwame and them fuckin polka dots”) more than it really was. It was a line to gain eyebrow raising. It was one of those punch lines. That’s how rappers are and I understand and understood what it is. It was like 14, 15 years ago, so it’s not even relevant in my head, but I definitely feel that if he were alive today I would be working with him. In this business no one stays friends and no one stays enemies, you see it all the time.